Jack Cowell: Threats against the media are troubling
Thursday, December 08, 2016 11:01 AM
SOUTH BEND – In my journalism classes at Notre Dame, I admonish my students to check their writing for accuracy, to check the facts, even mentioning the storied challenge of the old City News Bureau in Chicago to check everything: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
A background check on Mom goes too far. But accuracy is important. Important for the reputation of the writer. Important for the credibility of the print, broadcast or on-line provider of the news. Important for the readers or viewers searching for information as they make decisions in a democracy.
I have no concern about my students. If they go on in journalism, they will seek to get it right. And, almost every time, they will. My concern is that so many Americans won’t believe them. They will become members of what has recently been vilified as “the lyin’ media.” They will join a profession described as “scum,” “disgusting” and composed of “the lowest form of humanity.”
My concern isn’t that the students will have their feelings hurt or be hurt physically. Anybody covering the news, any news where there is disagreement, even over a library bond issue or a high school sports event, better develop thick skin. Some folks in a controversy will think only their side should be reported, that mere mention of the opposition is unfair “slanting” of the news.
Only a minute portion of journalists will ever cover a campaign event where attendees are incited to turn to and shout insults and threats at “the media.” Threats caused some news organizations to hire security as a precaution. But no journalists were injured at a Trump rally.
Of greater concern than taunts at a rally is that a much wider audience will discount factual accounts from “the lowest form of humanity” and choose instead to believe fake news, planted misinformation and unsubstantiated conspiracy rumors. A blogger sitting in his basement in his underwear can send an inaccurate account of some event he never attended and get more attention than the account of a reporter who was there and described the event accurately.
Anybody, whether well-intentioned or seeking to poison the well, can get on social media and spin nonsense or politically devastating rumors. A prankster can tweet. Facebook can be used to send a distortion viral. And frightening percentages of Americans believe that George W. Bush sent those planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that Hillary Clinton committed murders or that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have a pact as dictators to divide up the world.
A recent example of misinformation going viral was the posting by a Texas man of pictures of buses alleged to have brought paid protesters to an anti-Trump demonstration in Austin. Even the president-elect joined in, tweeting about those “professional protesters” bused in and “incited by the media.” Real reporters checked out the buses and found they actually had been used by a software company holding a large convention in Austin.
The man who jumped to a faulty conclusion after seeing the buses explained: “I’m also a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there.” He didn’t check it out. He didn’t have an editor asking if he was sure, if he had checked with the bus company, if he had sources confirming that protesters used the vehicles.
In Indianapolis, some people, believing the Austin misinformation, cited buses near an anti-Trump protest as proof that outsiders were bused into Indianapolis as well. The Indianapolis Star, checking it out, found that the buses “were carrying marching bands from across the country” for a national band competition there.
Can democracy function effectively if the electorate rejects facts, preferring misinformation that confirms what they want to believe? If accuracy means nothing, nothing good can come of that.
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.